Tuesday, January 16, 2007

From Sax Rohmer to the Virgin Chopras: Jackasses all the Way

"East is east and west is west, and never the twain shall meet" said Kipling, and history seems to be proving him right again. Orientalism to use Edward Said's term, is on the rise, and just like Gotham (Americanized Gautam) Chopra's dark lord Bala, is stronger than ever before.

"Virgin Comics" is the name for this latest exhibition of it. The thing is a collaboration funded by Branson, and headed by Deepak Chopra, Gotham Chopra, Shekhar Kapur and Sharad Devarajan (Whose previous brilliant idea was Pavitr Prabhakar as an Indian Spiderman, with girlfriend Meera Jain and deceased Uncle Bhim in tow) The motley crew above aim to develop comics and graphic novels, based on Indian mythologies for an Indian and global audience. Their vision is, to wit (referring Wikipedia):

"A culture is sustained and nurtured by its myths. Mythical themes influence our behavior and even our habits of consumption. Myth encapsulates the collective imagination, the collective dream, the collective aspirations of society. We are in need of new myths as we move into a global culture. The super heroes of tomorrow will be cross-cultural and transcend nationalistic boundaries. They will provide the raw material for a new imagination that will take us across the seas of space, time and beyond. I am excited about participating in the creative aspects of the comic project because I see an opportunity to bring to our society a message that goes beyond the narrow boundaries of nationalism, and invites them to a domain of awareness where we experience our universality and hopefully, go beyond racism, ethnocentrism, bigotry, prejudice, and hatred. The new super heroes will be hybrids of all cultures helping us dream infinite possibilities and actualize our highest potential."

Unfortunately, they don't do any of that stuff.

What Virgin Comics does is repeat the actions of Sax Rohmer, Rider Haggard and the idiot who collaborated with George Lucas (maybe Lucas himself), in presenting the former colonized Third World as an easy source of uber-pulpy fiction. Exit, Fu Manchu with your seductive Karamaneh, Umslopogaas with Zinj and Zu Vendis in forgotten Africa and Amrish Puri (or whoever he played in "Temple of Doom"). Enter, Devi and Baala, James "the Sadhu" Jenson and Jessica "the Snakewoman". Yep, out with the old, Westerner-derived colourful Eastern exotica, and in with the equally misguided New Age-based, NRI-derived Eastern.... exotica.

The storylines seriously make you ill. For example, Devi, a "re-telling of the tales of the mother Shakti". Tara, is chosen as the one among her generation to take on the powers of Devi, the ancient warrior goddess who fought pitched battles at the dawn of the world wearing leather tights. She must do so to stop Baala, the evil dark God/dark Lord/dark Knight/dark Goth dude whatever who looks like the Man-Bat, was defeated and sealed away in ancient times (but not destroyed outright; guess what follows) and is now more (you guessed it!!) powerful than ever (Why don't they ever kill him back then?). Buffy... I'm sorry!! Luke..I'm sorry!! Devi must stop Darkseid..I'm sorry!! Glorificus the Beast...I'm sorry!! The Master Vampire..Sorry again!! Agent Smith..Not so sorry!! Mogambo.. Faintly repentant... I mean, Baala from getting the One Ring...I mean... Invisibility Faarmoola... No no, I mean Source, an ancient thingie containing.... I dunno what, but if it falls into his hand, destruction, Armageddon, havoc, pillage, evil and general Kablooie will ensue. So follows "Devi", an original saga of adventure, evil, courage, tragedy and romance too (Tara falls in love too in between. Gee whiz, who saw that coming?)

Other plotlines: Snakewoman, revolving around Jessica Peterson (As opposed to Jessica Drew - she's Spiderwoman. Get your genus and species right). A lonely Mid-western girl, Jessica is horrified to find herself aroused on killing an attacker - who wastes time babbling about ancient ritualistic orders while attacking (not original, nor very efficient when you're attacking a protagonist). She is told the truth by "Mysterious Stranger the Upteenabazabagillionth" - she's the reincarnation of an Indian serpent deity (Gee, this is original and a re-invention, isn't it? Especially the female protagonist/anti-hero? I wonder what Sridevi had to say) that's out for blood. Who's blood? That of the reincarnated enemies of the deity, who slaughtered its entire tribe of priests centuries ago (And presumably posted their snake charming tunes on Pandora). Precisely what are you re-inventing, Messrs. Chopras and Kapur? Indian mythology and culture, or hit movies from the 80's which unfortunately lacked the Shaw Brothers to bring them to America?

I remember friend lexicomaniac remarking on my statement "Globalization sucks the exotic out of everything". Here' s a follow-up - it re-injects the exotic, in the manner people seek it, into everything. And this exotic isn't appreciative exotic by a long shot. It's cheap and synthetic, and the injection process can be best compared to a collagen treatment. Deepak Chopra (or rather, Chodra) and Gotham Chodra seek to inject their New Age, Ron Howard-esque, Pulpy interpretation of Indian mythos into the sagging cheeks and breasts of their India-peddling careers. The result: Indian mythology, something that should analogize (I'm full of new words these days) Scarlet Johannson from "Match Point", ends up like Pamela Anderson in "Basic Instinct 3".

The Japanese have, in that sense, truly achieved a blend of modern medium with old culture. Check out anime/manga series like Naruto, Full Metal Alchemist, Bleach, Cowboy Bepop and Samurai Champloo. You see modern, futuristic, fantasy, neo-noir or a 100 different worlds. Yet, the aesthetics of Japanese culture remain in the thing, together with classic mythological elements re-invented in a proper setting. Space-Age bounty hunters in the mold of Old West gunmen and Edo ronin? Inventive. Mythological serpent demons in the mold of modern enemy ninjas? Ingenious. The Ramayana re-invented as a dude with a nuclear bow and arrow vs a Sauronesque nanomachine with Sanskrit names? Idiotic.

India is in need of re-inventing its culture. It just needs people other than the Chopras to do it. Where are you, Indian mangakas and comic artists sans the Snake-Oil?